Archived Story

A team worth cheering

Published 12:13pm Saturday, March 23, 2013

If members of the Franklin High School robotics team wore helmets and shoulder pads, they’d have been honored with a parade down Main Street by now.

The team’s accomplishment last weekend — winning the FIRST World Robotics Championship regional competition in Richmond — is no less impressive, and perhaps more, than the state football championships FHS has won in the past decade.

The football Broncos deserved every accolade that came their way. The robotics team deserves more.

Against tall odds, the FHS “Builders of Tomorrow” emerged from a field of 60-plus teams from Virginia and five other states to be one of just six that will advance to the world championship in St. Louis in late April.

The 11-member team — Elizabeth Conner, Oakley Sthole, Madi Busby, Cindy Mitrovic, Darryl West, Sarah Conner, Connor Shanks, Grant Scarboro, Clinton Smith, Jatrez Foster and Dean Alex Russell – was ranked just 55th statewide going into the regional competition. Sponsored by a nonprofit called FIRST (“For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology”), the competition featured handmade robots that could climb pyramids, throw Frisbees and overcome other challenges. Judges graded each team based on innovation, science, speed, precision and technology.

Unlike in high school athletics, where schools of comparable size compete against one another in the playoffs, the FHS robotics team went up against larger schools with up to 40 members on a team.

For perspective, think the classic movie “Hoosiers” and tiny Hickory High School beating the city boys from South Bend for the Indiana state championship in 1952. The FHS robotics championship compares favorably, except for the fact that sporting accomplishments still trump academic excellence in today’s society.

There were no marching bands, cheerleaders and screaming fans waiting at the Franklin High gym when the Builders got home from Richmond last weekend. Coach Liz Burgess was no less proud.

“They are the best! We were ranked 55th and we won it all,” Burgess told The Tidewater News. “They faced a lot of adversity and nobody gave up. They were resilient to the end and they persevered. I am beyond proud.”

Burgess, like her team, is underappreciated. She toils endlessly on nights and weekends for months leading up to competition. It’s good timing that husband, Benny, a certified public accountant, is buried in tax returns during robotics season.

Adult mentors from the community like Kyle Johnson, Don Shanks, Hank Mummert and John Neave contribute their time and expertise to Team 1610.

The robotics team represents all that is right about Franklin’s public schools, which tend to be defined more by their deficiencies than their successes. The robotics kids remind of a point made in this space many times: The best and brightest from Franklin High School can compete toe to toe and brain to brain with the best and brightest from anywhere in the state.

FIRST robotic programs are active in schools around the globe, with more than 300,000 students worldwide (10,000 from Virginia) involved in the science and engineering of high-tech robots.

The goal of FIRST, according to its mission statement, is to inspire young people to be science and technology leaders, by engaging them in mentor-based programs that build science, engineering and technology skills that inspire innovation. Students have the opportunity to compete for more than $16 million in college scholarships internationally.

It is precisely the kind of program and students we should be celebrating, as a community and as a society.

  • gunner58

    Thank you for highlighting the accomplishments of these gifted young people and their mentors.

    I hope that a parade is forthcoming, and that the city council issues a declaration of recognition.

    I also hope the team will be celebrated with “gateway” signs at Franklin’s major entrances.


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  • TeacherForLife

    On the day that the robotics team left for regionals, I remarked to my husband that I was disappointed (but not surprised)that we had not received a single reverse 911 call praising the team and encouraging community members to come out and support them. When the FHS football team was competing in the playoffs last fall, we got THREE such calls.
    If we are a school system that truly values academic achievement, then we need to show that by encouraging and celebrating academic success as enthusiastically as we do athletic success. The members of this team and their mentors worked extremely hard and deserve the recognition of the school system and the community.

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  • hankmum

    I’d like to thank Mr Stewart on his comments on our little team. We don’t get a lot of press or publicity but its nice when we do. What the paper and Mr Stewart haven’t mentioned is that some teams we’ve gone up against are even larger than 40 students. Some teams also have huge sponsors like GM, Boeing, Ford,G.E., Rolls Royce, etc. Teams that are in major cites can draw on a larger student base and have more mentors available to them. It doesn’t take much to be a part of Franklin’s team.For a student all they have to do is ask one of our team members or contact Liz Burgess.
    For mentors all they have to do is come by the Charles St. gym when we are there and talk to us or again contact Liz Burgess. You don’t have to be a expert in anything to be a mentor, but it helps. Just showing a student how to use a drill or a saw helps. There are many aspects to the robotics program besides building and programming a robot. It takes all sorts of trades and professions.The more mentors we have, the more students we can then handle. The mentors are a important part of what makes the First program work. For a team to be very successful it also takes a partnership of the students, mentors, schools, businesses and the community. The most successful First teams have a huge outreach in their communities and have a great impact and benefit. One team that competes in Richmond has a 90% plus college graduation rate for students who have been in the program
    along with other things they do locally.
    Franklin’s team would not exist if it wasn’t for the leadership and preseverance of Liz Burgess. She is a Elementary school teacher running a High School program
    which is a bit unusual, but she does a wonderful,tireless job of it. she above anyone else on the team should be commended for its success to date.

    Hank Mummert
    mentor for team 1610

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